For the disciples, there were certainly good days and bad days. There were days when they sat with the crowds at Jesus’ feet and heard him tell of blessings far beyond their imaginings. There were days when they saw him reach out and heal the hopeless, the outcast, the abandoned, the sick, the dying, even the dead. And there were special days, golden days, when it was just the bakers’ dozen of them, striding along the road, laughing and jostling each other as they passed around the wineskin, then stopping to pray and to enjoy the beauty of the wide open sky and the sound of each other’s breathing. But then there were the bad days, the days when they just didn’t get it, when the healings didn’t come, when the words didn’t make sense. There were days filled with more conflict than comfort, days when they were scared to meet each other’s eyes, when Jesus’ words of arrest and crucifixion dogged them along the road.
This day had started out as a very bad day. For Jesus and the disciples had just received the worst possible news: John the Baptist had been killed by Herod, beheaded, executed and then paraded around as the worst kind of party game. He had been their friend and their brother, and he had been arrested for proclaiming the Lord whom they followed. He had sat, wasted and wasting in prison, while they walked through their good days and their bad days. And now he was dead, and the world seemed that much uglier.
And so the day had begun by Jesus’ telling them that he was off on his own. He would leave them to pray and to mourn, push off in a boat to find some solitude on the sea. Not the beginning of a good day. Because they needed him, of course. They didn’t do well without him. James and John tended to try to lord it over the others when Jesus was gone; Peter would get impatient and press the group to move on, to go into town, to do…something. The disciples fractured without Jesus on their best days, and this day was far from their best. After all they were mourning, too; they too were shaken by the sheer meanness of the world. This was a terrible day to leave them alone, they thought, as they watched Jesus row out into the mourning with their own hearts heavy in their chests.
He didn’t go far. They could see him bobbing near the far shoreline, a finger trailing in the water, eyes searching the horizon. They were close enough to him as they sat on the shore, picking through rocks and listening to the gulls, speaking to each other in low voices about their fears for the future, muttering prayers under their breath for poor, lost John. They were close enough to him to notice when a crowd began to gather at that far shoreline, jostling to see Jesus on the bright line of the water, crying out to him, calling him in to shore. He would go in to them, of course they knew this, and there would be the sick to heal and lepers to cleanse and unwashed bodies and tears and cries of pain and they might be able to offer their own healings but they might not and anyway who felt like dealing with these crowds today when they were all still so stunned and sad? Didn’t these people know that today was a bad day?
But as they approached Jesus, with the larger and larger crowds clearing a path for them with whispers and nods and bright, hopeful eyes, they saw him, standing in the midst, surrounded by nothing by need and sand and sunlight, but with such a look of love on his face. He smiled at everyone he saw, beamed at them, touched them with such gentleness, spoke to them as if each one was friend or brother or sister. The disciples watched tens, dozens, hundreds of people flow up to Jesus in wave after wave of want and then roll away rejoicing – freed, healed, and whole. And so happy that they then just stayed there, a pool of people gathering around, still and silent and full of all of the depths of holiness. It was profoundly beautiful, and they looked out on these crowds and their Lord, and said, It is good.
It was so good that they didn’t want the day to end in upset and worry, so when the shadows began to lengthen and the breeze began to cool, they reminded their Lord that these people still needed to get home so that they could get something to eat. This day has gone from being very, very bad to very, very good, but it is enough now. It is okay to send them away, they say, to call an end to this gift, to draw the curtain down on this holiness. But Jesus says no; this day is not over. There is more gift here. And he gathers from them all the food they could find, five loaves and two fishes, blesses them, and breaks up the loaves. He gives the food to them – a basket of broken bread, a basket of flaky fish, and tells them to begin passing it out. And so they do, walking down among the still, seated crowds, here, some for you, of course, take some more, another fish for your little girl? And they watch the smiles and the tears, the delight in the eyes of all they touch. They hear contented sighs and appreciative noises. They hear comments: the bread is delicious, and how is it that mine is chewy and tastes like rosemary, my favorite, and his is crisp and salty? Is there more, the disciples hear again and again, and again and again they are able to answer, yes, of course, here is more.
And they watch their hands – their own, simple working-man’s hands – dip into baskets again and again, close around some delicious morsel and open again and again, offering bread and meat. They hear the chewing begin to turn into sounds of laughter, and then someone is calling out for Miriam to sing, and then there is music and dancing and infinite joy, all the while they are opening their hands again and again, filling empty palms with holy food, with love, with life.
And they cannot help but hear the voice of the psalms in their heads as they walk, “The eyes of all wait upon you, O Lord, and you give them their food in due season. You open wide your hand and satisfy the needs of every living creature.” They have known this psalm since they were boys, and its words of promise and hope have always brought comfort. You open wide your hand…and yet all this time they never imagined that the hands that would be opening wide would be their own.
There is much that is different between those disciples’ days and our own. We have good days and bad days, too. We lose those we love, we live in hope and then in fear, we have moments of transcendent beauty and moments of colossal confusion. But we rarely see miracles like this these days. The spontaneous multiplication of loaves and fishes doesn’t happen much around these parts. But that doesn’t mean that our hands aren’t still the hands that God wants to use to help satisfy, to offer meat, the bread, the stuff of life. It’s just that our miracles look a little more like stone soup than miraculous multiplication. Do you remember that story? A poor monk comes into a town and begins to cook in a large pot with nothing more than water and a large stone. As the townspeople come by and ask what he is doing, he tells them that he is cooking a delicious stew with just that one stone. But he could, of course, use a little carrot for color. And so a woman brings him some carrots. A little celery for garnish, perhaps, and the celery appears. And then potatoes, and radishes, and turnips, and corn, and chicken, and salt, and pepper and on and on until the town, onto the game now, sits down with the monk and all enjoy the stone soup together.
So maybe our miracles look a little more like that than baskets full of bread and fish. Maybe our miracles look more like feeding soup to 175 people on a Saturday morning than fields full of five thousand families. Maybe our miracles look more like inviting a friend to come to Mass that they may be fed from this holy table. Maybe our miracles look more like withdrawing alone to pray and staying alone to pray, but praying nonetheless. Maybe our miracles are different. But they are no less miraculous, and in those miracles our hands look the same – hands that open wide to do God’s work of feeding, body and soul. Our hands look the same as they reach deep into what we have to offer, measly as it may seem, and find it needed by the world, again and again. Our hands look the same, opening wide to feed the world, to bring joy and companionship, to turn darkness into light and bad days into days that are very, very good.
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
3 August 2014
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia